How Naturopathic Medicine Works & How It Could Help You


Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired? A naturopath may be exactly what you need.

If you are open to trying an alternative approach to health or medical treatments, you may want to consider working with a licensed naturopathic doctor or traditional naturopath. Interested in an integrative treatment? Find out exactly what naturopathic medicine is, and exactly how a naturopath can work with you to achieve optimal wellness!

What is naturopathic medicine?

Naturopathic medicine is a distinct type of primary health care that concentrates on whole-patient wellness. It blends age-old healing traditions with the latest scientific advances and research. It’s guided by a unique set of seven principles that emphasize prevention, natural remedies, and the promotion of a person’s inherent ability to self-heal.

Naturopathic doctors, also known as naturopaths, take on a very individualized approach to medicine, embracing a range of therapies, such as massage, herbs, acupuncture, meditation, exercise, and nutritional counseling. (1)

Did you know?
Just like MDs, licensed NDs attend an accredited medical school for four years and must pass rigorous professional board examinations before being officially licensed to practice by a state.

Interested in finding out more about naturopathic doctors? Continue reading on below!

patient visiting a practitioner

For your first naturopathic doctor’s visit, get ready to sit down and talk. The goal of a naturopathic doctor is not to get rid of a patient’s symptoms—but to get them well.

What is a naturopathic doctor?

Licensed Naturopaths (NDs) or Naturopathic Medical Doctors (NMDs) are clinically-trained primary care physicians who utilize a range of therapies to find and address the underlying cause of a patient’s condition. NDs diagnose, treat, manage, and prevent acute and chronic conditions, while also addressing health at the level of mind, body, and spirit. (1)

When you develop complicated health problems and need a multitude of specialists, you’ll often appreciate an ND’s quality coordination of care!

What should I expect when seeing a naturopath?

While you may know what it’s like to visit an MD’s office or the ER, people are often pleasantly surprised by what they find during their first visit to a naturopathic doctor. Here are some things to keep in mind when you make your first naturopath appointment. (2)

  • Get ready to get comfortable. The first office visit may last between 60-90 minutes. The backbone of naturopathic medicine is built on an individualized treatment plan, which means filling out a rigorous health history questionnaire and an in-depth oral interview.
  • Think about why you are seeing an ND. You’ll be asked what your desired outcomes are. Do you want more energy? Are you trying to conceive? Your ND will personalize a treatment plan around these expectations.
  • Do you have trouble sleeping? Your ND will want to know about your sleep patterns.
    Familiar with the saying ‘you are what you eat’? Food will be a focal point of the consultation!
  • Don’t be surprised if your ND wants to take a closer look at your eyes, skin, nails, and tongue. What’s going on outside may be a clue to what’s happening inside the body.
  • Are you taking any medications or supplements? Certain herbs and nutrients can interact with other medications or lead to nutrient depletion. Your doctor will want to know anything that you’re currently taking.
  • Be prepared to collaborate with your MD and other healthcare providers. NDs are experts at coordinating healthcare and consulting with other practitioners to form an individualized approach to well-being.
woman journaling

Keeping a food and/or symptoms journal can be a good idea leading up to your first ND visit.

What is the Naturopathic Therapeutic Order?

The therapeutic order is a set of seven guidelines that are used to help naturopaths approach treating patients and addressing health concerns holistically. Think of it as the backbone that governs a naturopathic doctor’s clinical decision-making. The therapeutic order begins by offering minimally invasive therapies aimed at supporting the body and ends with more aggressive techniques using pharmaceutical substances or surgery. (3)

Did you know?
The goal of treatment in naturopathic medicine is to completely resolve a patient’s symptoms and address the underlying cause while using the least possible force.

A naturopathic doctor will only lead you down the path of invasive and costly treatments if you are unresponsive to less-invasive modalities. They will also continue to support you naturopathically when you may require the removal of an invasive disease.

practitioner writing in a notebook while patient is speaking

NDs aim to use a range of therapies that will offer the most significant benefit with the least potential for damage or serious side effects.

The 7 steps of the Naturopathic Therapeutic Order

According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, these are seven steps of the Therapeutic Order: (3)(4)

Remove obstacles to health

The first step in naturopathic health is removing entities that disturb your health and setting the foundation for optimal health. Naturopathic doctors put together a healthy regimen based on an individual’s “obstacles to health” to change and improve the environment so diseases don’t develop. This allows additional therapies to have the most beneficial effects possible. Examples include addressing poor diet, ensuring restful sleep, fostering relationships, managing stress, encouraging hobbies and passions, and even supporting spiritual and moral fulfillment.

Stimulate self-healing mechanisms & power of nature

Once obstacles have been removed, NDs will use therapies to stimulate and strengthen the body’s innate self-healing abilities. This entails harnessing and building up vital force (also known as the healing power of nature). Modalities such as acupuncture, visualization, meditation, yoga, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, journaling, and prayer aim to strengthen vital force, which awakens one’s ability to self-heal.

Strengthen weakened systems

This stage of the therapeutic order is implemented when a long-standing condition or poor lifestyle choice has resulted in damage to organ systems, and someone is experiencing chronic pain. The bodily systems that are explicitly hurting and need repair are addressed at this level of naturopathic healing through different therapeutics. Naturopaths will often use lifestyle interventions, dietary changes, botanical medicine, orthomolecular therapy, and/or homeotherapy at this stage. This is often the stage where many people will turn to medications to manage symptoms rather than trying to support their health naturally.

Correct structural integrity

At this stage and sometimes earlier, NDs encourage proper alignment of the skeletal and muscular system. Ensuring proper skeletal alignment is essential for health and well-being. Physical modalities such as massage therapy, stretching, acupuncture, spinal manipulation (think chiropractor), and craniosacral therapy are used.

Try natural substances to restore and regenerate

Once you get to level five of the therapeutic order, the root cause of the disease is bypassed, and the symptoms are addressed directly. NDs will now focus on the therapeutic goal of treating symptoms over treating the root cause. No one likes to be in chronic pain. Naturopaths will use safe, effective, and natural substances and therapies from previous steps that do not add toxicity to the body to restore health.

Take pharmacologic substances to halt progressive pathology

Depending on where you live, the naturopathic scope of practice may end here. Only some NDs are trained and actively practice pharmacology and how to use pharmaceutical grade drugs when necessary. If their state license permits, they can prescribe these agents themselves. If not, they often refer a patient to a conventional medical college.

Use of high force, invasive modalities (such as surgery or chemotherapy)

This stage of the medical order is performed by medical specialists (not NDs). When life, function, or limb must be preserved, an ND will refer patients to a medical doctor who is expertly trained in the area of invasive treatment. At the same time, the ND will continue to use complementary and supportive therapies to decrease the side effects and increase the effectiveness of these invasive procedures.

What is the difference between a licensed naturopathic doctor and a traditional naturopath?

The difference between a traditional naturopath and licensed naturopath can be a bit confusing. This is because both type of practitioners use the title of ‘naturopath’. While both traditional NDs and licensed naturopaths aim to heal the body and mind through natural substances and therapies, they are not one and the same.

A licensed ND is trained to diagnose and prescribe, while a traditional naturopath (or naturopath) has no standard curriculum and cannot legally diagnose or prescribe to patients.

So depending on how they learned to practice naturopathic medicine and where they live, a naturopath’s scope of practice can vary greatly.

Did you know?
The Council on Naturopathic Medical Education (CNME) is the only accrediting body for naturopathic medical programs/schools in the U.S. and Canada that qualifies graduates for licensure. (5)

practitioner talking to a patient

A traditional naturopath can also use the title and serve as a health consultant or wellness coach.

How do NDs become licensed naturopathic doctors in North America?

To become a licensed naturopathic doctor in North America, an ND must complete the following: (6)

  • Study a curriculum which includes current medical science and traditional naturopathic theory. Students from accredited naturopathic medical schools must complete over 4,1000 contact hours of instruction, including at least 1,200 hours of supervised, hands-on clinical training.
  • Graduate from a four-year, professional-level naturopath program at a federally accredited naturopathic medical school, which is accredited by the CNME and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Pass exams. NDs must take and pass a 2-part examination known as the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Exam (NPLEX). The NPLEX is administered by the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners (NABNE). This exam covers basic sciences, diagnostic and therapeutic subjects, and clinical sciences.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the laws and scope of practice for NDs varies from state to state. In fact, there are yet to be any formal regulations on practicing naturopathic medicine in the majority of U.S. states and Canadian provinces. (7)

Did you know?
Both traditional and licensed NDs take classes in botanical medicine and homeopathy. Traditional and licensed NDs can treat clients in unregulated states and provinces.

Where can I find a licensed naturopathic doctor?

Naturopaths are licensed or registered in 22 states, the District of Columbia (DC), the United States territories of Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, as well as five Canadian provinces. All licensed Naturopathic doctors in these states can work in a private or group practice, hospitals, medical schools, integrative oncology care clinics, and for governmental organizations. (8)

Did you know?
Most licensed naturopaths are covered by insurance. Check with your provider if you’re interested.

A list of U.S. states & territories currently offering licensure for NDs:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • District of Columbia (DC)
  • U.S. Territories: Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands

A list of Canadian provinces currently offering regulation for naturopathic physicians:

  • Alberta
  • British Columbia
  • Manitoba
  • Ontario
  • Saskatchewan

Did you know?
Naturopathic doctors can consult with patients, make recommendations and give suggestions based on prior diagnosis in several of the yet unlicensed states and provinces. (9)

doctor reading a book

NDs must also fulfill state-mandated continuing education requirements annually.

Did you know?
In Arizona, an ND is considered a “physician” who can prescribe a variety of medicines like injections. In Connecticut, NDs aren’t allowed to prescribe at all.

If you live in the U.S., The AANP has an online directory of all the licensed NDs in the US you can search using a zip code and distance you are willing to travel. Are you a resident of Canada? The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND) can also help you find a naturopathic doctor nearby. Keep in mind that the online directly only includes states that have regulations around naturopaths. If you’re just interested in the natural side of treatment advice or live in a state without formal regulations, don’t be afraid to ask your conventional doctor for a personal recommendation.

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!